Chapter 1: neesan/sister
This is a Battle of Blackwater AU/Meiji Restoration crossover that you definitely did NOT ask for. I’m working hard to make sure that you don’t have to read Rurouni Kenshin to get this. Uhhh . . . so, here, have something a little bit different.
Rurouni Kenshin is a 1990s manga/Japanese comic book turned popular anime series turned extremely popular 2010s live action movie series. It revolves around sword fighters and their friends in Tokyo during the 1860s.
Please note that Kaoru and Sansa are both 18 years old in this fic.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
First she heard an explosion, followed by cries of terror, louder than what Kaoru remembered of the shelling and screaming in Tokyo before the shogunate forces had surrendered. She smelled the stink of offal, of burnt buildings, of sweating beasts. She allowed herself to realize that even as she seemed to be riding an earthquake, her windpipe was no longer being crushed beneath Enishi’s fingers. She gulped a breath and opened her eyes to darkness.
Well, not darkness, not exactly -- more of a green-black glow over a greasy haze, and not an earthquake to ride, either -- a horse, in the middle of a riot! Kaoru screamed, not that her voice could have been heard over the chaos. She didn’t have time to look around, though. She was losing her balance, sliding backwards. She thrust herself forward instinctively, grabbing blindly at anything that could save her. Her arm hooked around a great wall that spoke.
“Hold on tight, little bird,” it growled in crunchy syllables, and it cursed, and then there was another explosion that lit up the skies in electric green, and Kaoru saw an enormous bloody broadsword in a great gloved fist. A pair of hands reached up toward the horse through the crowd, and the sword came down and hacked them off in a single stroke.
The blood sprayed across Kaoru’s hakama. Her chin snapped up, and she clamped her jaw shut. She might not understand how she’d come from the triad’s island jail to this midnight hell, but she knew how to fight. With the hand that wasn’t clutching the man in front of her, she reached for the bokken that should have been at her belt, but of course Enishi had disarmed her before he had kidnapped her.
“Stupid,” she muttered to herself, but didn’t have time to think as the horse slowed just enough that a pale foreigner with yellow hair and black broken teeth hurled himself at her and grasped at her clothes. “Off!” she screamed as she gave him a hard kick to the face.
The wall-man in front of her raised his sword again, and when Kaoru looked beyond she saw a mounted soldier with a crazy full bodysuit of armor charging toward them on another great horse. But the man skewered the soldier in the neck, in a crack between the metal pieces.
As the dead soldier slumped over and his horse passed by, Kaoru stretched herself outward and wrestled his sword from his limp hand. The weapon was heavy, and straight, and sharp. She wouldn’t really be able to wield it effectively, but she needed something, and fast. No sooner had she taken it than another man in the crowd reached for her. She whacked him over the head with the flat of the blade, and as he fell the others seemed to decide that she wasn’t worth the risk of injury.
The horse sloped from a bumpy trot to a smoother, faster gait, and the men on the streets got out of the way, uninterested in being flattened. The man and his horse -- and now Kaoru, apparently -- seemed to be fleeing through a canyon of burning buildings, though she couldn’t identify much amidst the smoke and flame.
Kaoru’s long black hair had somehow stayed tied back, and now it whipped behind her as the man brought the horse to a gallop. A foot soldier tripped in front of them, and the horse ran him down. His screams echoed in Kaoru’s skull.
Kaoru clutched the man in front of her with both arms just to keep from falling, and the sword she held clanged against the plate metal on his massive thigh. They passed under some kind of bridge, or perhaps through a tall open gate, and straight into the thickest, blackest woods Kaoru had ever seen.
They rode through whatever was left of the night. The man never looked back, though once he asked, “Glad you’re rid of that place?”
Kaoru, in her fear and exhaustion, forgot all her questions and simply replied, “Yes.”
By the time the first rays of sunlight seared their way through the tree branches and smoke, Kaoru’s fingers felt locked in place, and her thighs felt like they’d been whacked by a thousand shinai. She could finally see that the man she rode behind had a scraggly mess of dark hair and impossibly broad shoulders.
As they crossed a stream, the horse thrust its head into the water and refused to bring his head back up in spite of its master’s best efforts. “Stubborn bastard,” the man laughed, low and rough.
Kaoru let go of him and didn’t catch the next words out of the man’s mouth. He dismounted, turned around, and looked up at her.
Kaoru gasped. She knew scars -- long white seams -- jagged purple patches -- an ‘x’ across the cheek, her heart beat to her -- but she had never seen half a face melted off. She tried to scuttle away, but there was no place to go. With the last of her strength, she held up the sword and took a swing.
He said something garbled and held up his massive arm, which the sword bounced off with a clang; then he reached up and hauled her off the horse by her collar. “Oh no you don’t, you little bitch,” he growled. Kaoru tried to kick at him, but her legs flopped like thick noodles.
He threw her to the ground and she tried stand to flee, but once again her legs failed her. The man put his knee against her spine and knocked the too heavy sword from her fingers. He stank of dried blood and sweat and a foul sort of kerosene. His gloved hand on her neck seemed to reach nearly all the way around.
And then there was only his horrible breath, sweet and putrid on her face. Low in her ear, he said, “What have you done with Lady Sansa?”
She must have been thrown off Stranger and passed out, and Sandor Clegane must have left her here in some King’s Landing alley. One moment Sansa had been careening through the streets on the warhorse’s saddle blanket with her ruined gown bunched up around her legs, the man who was not a knight rescuing her from a terrible fate, and the next she was lying on her back, her arms outstretched, her hands hot against the cobblestones. Clegane had told her he would keep her safe, had promised to pluck her from the viper’s pit and take her home to her mother, but he must have lied, because she didn’t hear her mother’s voice, couldn’t hear anything but squalling seabirds in the distance. She didn’t want to open her eyes, because then she would have to face whatever was to come next.
She had to do something. She cracked open one eyelid, then the other, to the deepest azure sky she had ever seen. That didn’t seem right. Even if she’d been lying in a ditch for days, the wildfire-burnt wrecks in the harbor should still be smoking, spewing out a brownish haze for miles and miles.
Someone coughed softly nearby. She blinked and swallowed, too frightened to turn her head away from the blue. The cough came again, meatier this time.
“Neesan,” a man’s voice gurgled through the hacking.
Sansa bolted upright, her head pounding from the movement. She blinked again, stunned and confused by the sight before her. She wasn’t in any King’s Landing alley, nor in any Crownsland forest. She was sitting up, legs splayed, on the ground of some kind of open courtyard with fine wide tiles and a tall, delicate building on two sides. Beyond a short parapet, Sansa could see the tops of lush trees with peculiar leaves. And off to her side, there was an overturned table, the spilled remains of a meal, and a man curled up on the ground beside a pool of vomit.
Sansa scrambled to her feet, careful not to trip on the muddy, bloody hem of her skirts. Instinctively, she called out, “Help, someone, is anyone -- ah --”
Her voice sputtered out as she looked beyond what she could now clearly see was a balcony, which was clearly attached to the second or third story of a house that looked out over a whole forest full of the strange trees. A green bird with a hooked beak darted past with a squawk. Just how far away from King’s Landing was she?
Sansa glanced back at the man, who was still curled up on the floor. He seemed to be shivering, or sobbing, or both. He was dressed quite peculiarly, wearing what seemed to be some kind of short silk orange and blue jacket and long pants of the same colors. At first she thought he was very old because of the straight white hair that stuck out everywhere, but as she approached him to look at his bruised, scratched face, she realized that he was probably only a few years older than she was, and certainly not from Westeros. His tan complexion and narrow chin suggested someplace further east, perhaps even further than the Free Cities. Gently, she placed her fingertips on his shoulder. “Ser,” she said, wondering whether this was the proper way to address him, wondering if she shouldn’t just run away to see if she could find Clegane. “Where can I get you help?”
“Sister,” he replied clearly, his eyes popping open wide, then slamming shut, and Sansa pulled her hand away as fast as if she’d reached out to touch a blacksmith’s forge. He clutched his stomach with a heavily bandaged arm. “Nee-san,” he cried plaintively.
Sansa backed away toward a strange double door embedded with the largest, clearest, most perfectly square pieces of glass that she had ever seen. “Stay -- stay there. Let me find you help,” she said, her tongue like wet leather in her mouth. She pressed down on the door handle -- a complicated mechanism that she could feel clicking through the vibrations in her hand -- and stepped inside, hoping for the best.
The door opened onto a hallway that ended with a tall window at the other end. Halfway down was a narrow but carefully crafted staircase. The floor inside was made of buffed wooden planks, partially covered by a maroon rug with an intricate, dizzying pattern. “Hound?” she called. “Clegane?” she said, more quietly this time.
No one answered. From the open door, she heard the man sigh, followed again by that strange word.
This man needs help. You need help, Sansa reminded herself, swallowing the rising panic in her throat. She took the first step forward, and the next ones down the hall and down the stairs were easier.
On the first floor, she found an entry area with two large rooms on either side -- a sort of sitting room with a single upholstered chair in a style she had never seen before, and another large and mostly empty room with a heavy writing table in the middle -- and then smaller quarters in the back that she worked out to be a very different and small sort of kitchen and eating space, but there were no people. The kitchen, at least, had been used recently, judging by scraps of fish and rice beside a knife on one of the flat surfaces. She returned to the entry hall and opened the wide, heavy front door.
Sansa swallowed again, but this time she couldn’t control the fear. She walked a dozen paces out beyond the door, up to the edge of a bluff. The land below, blanketed with foliage, stretched out on either side like the horns of a bull, or the outstretched arms of a mother. Beyond that was a crescent-shaped beach with the whitest sand she had ever seen. Far in the distance, a ship with oddly configured sails pointed away from the bay.
Her braids had come loose during the commotion of the battle, and now her hair flew around her face in the breeze. Her ruined skirts rustled uselessly. Overwhelmed, she sank to her knees and stared out at the endless ocean, the only thing bluer than that sky.
Behind her, she heard shaky footsteps on the staircase.
[to be continued]
DEPARTMENT OF CANONICAL CORRECTIONS: Not that too many people will notice, but I took some liberties with the geography of Enishi’s island and what Kaoru is wearing (because let’s face it, fighting clothes are just gonna be easier for her to run around in than a bathrobe).
BUREAU OF SELF-FLAGELLATION: Ummm . . . thanks for indulging me. I don’t know how to feel about this. I hope you like this.
Chapter 2: jinchuu/revenge
Thank you for giving this a try, even if you don’t know anything about half this crossover! I will do my very best to make it understandable.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I said, tell me what you have done with the girl,” the man growled into Kaoru’s ear as he pressed her face to the dirt.
Kaoru curled her fingers into a hook, waiting. Come closer, she thought through the pain.
He did. “Did you hear what I -- aurrghh!” He howled in agony as Kaoru poked him hard in the eye. His hand shot to his face, and the shift in his weight was just enough for Kaoru to half-shove him away, half-wriggle out from under his knee.
Kaoru darted to her feet and reclaimed her sword. It was still too heavy and the shape of the blade was all wrong for her, but she made up for these problems by sliding one hand up the hilt and altering her foot position.
The man’s destroyed face twisted into a sneer. “What do you plan to do with that? Swat away flies?” he mocked, but he stood up and placed his hand on the pommel of his own sword.
“I do not wish to hurt you,” Kaoru told him as she adjusted her fingers on the handle. The man’s one remaining eyebrow shot up high on his forehead. “Please,” Kaoru said, “just let me ask some questions about what is happening here.”
The man unsheathed his sword from his belt in a single smooth motion and held it in one hand. “You should be answering my questions, not asking them,” he said, taking a slow step forward. Then he charged and swung the blade at her.
She sidestepped as she blocked him, and the tip of his sword slid off hers with a sick metallic scrape. The man was strong enough to have cleaved her in two, but he was at a speed disadvantage in his bulky armor.
“Not bad for someone with the stupidest fucking stance I’ve ever seen,” he taunted, then lunged forward in an obvious feint.
Kaoru didn’t fall for it. She hopped out of the way easily in spite of her still burning legs. “I’m improvising here,” she responded, returning to her defensive position. “What’s your excuse?” she heckled.
“Got a real mouth on you, for a Slaver’s Bay cunt, or wherever it is you’re from,” he cursed with that dirt-gravel voice. “Now tell me where in the Seven Hells you’ve taken Sansa, and maybe I’ll give you a fast clean death.” The tough words didn’t cover the fearful desperation in his tone. He was circling her, trying to back her into the creek.
She moved away so he couldn’t corner her, but this wrong weapon was tiring her arms out already. Soon she’d have to decide whether to attempt a disabling strike or make a run for it. She glanced past the man’s shoulder, hoping to see an obvious escape path.
He laughed cruelly. “Don’t bother. I can’t chase after you on foot, but you know how fast my horse would run you down.” He lunged again and she retreated, but this time the tip of his sword grazed her sleeve.
Kaoru’s remaining options were slipping away with the passage of each second. She couldn’t run. She couldn’t disable one of his limbs, not with all his armor. She could try to hit his unprotected head, but he was so much taller than she was, and a successful swipe to the skull would surely kill him. She dare not try that, then -- even with her life in danger, she had long ago vowed to take up a sword only to protect, never to destroy.
Still, she didn’t want to die here with this strange scarred man screaming curses at her.
As she shuffled away from the man, she thought of Kenshin, her own scarred warrior. His most powerful weapon wasn’t a sword at all; it was his gift of persuading foes to abandon their bloodthirsty vendettas. Kenshin would have disarmed this angry man by now, would have him curled in a ball and sobbing on the forest floor, questioning his life’s meaning, promising never to kill again.
That was the move, then. With practiced grace, she dropped out of her fighting stance and stood up erect, her muscles rigid from her fear. She held the sword out to the man on her flattened palms as she bowed at the waist. “Please, I don’t know who you are or how I got to this place. I don’t even know what language we’re speaking or how it is that I can understand you. I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here. But if you kill me now, there’s little chance of setting things right again.” She held her breath and listened for the sound of a sword whooshing down to slice her in half.
The man’s feet scraped into her view of the ground. “Is this a trick?” she heard him say.
Kaoru swallowed dryly. “It might be, but if it is, I didn’t have anything to do with it.” She chanced a look into the man’s burned face.
He was staring back at her. “Who are you?” he rasped, with that same sound of desperation creeping back into his voice.
Cautiously, she straightened up again. “Kaoru Kamiya, kendo master of the Kamiya Kasshin Ryu, ‘the sword that gives life,’” she recited.
“That’s pretty fucking stupid,” he muttered, lowering his own weapon. “In case you didn’t notice during the riot we rode through, swords are for killing.”
Kaoru fought the urge to roll her eyes. “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” If only he knew how many times she’d had to fight her way through that argument. “And you are --”
“Sandor Clegane. Pledged to --” he paused and ran his hand across his scalp, “myself, for now. House Stark, someday, maybe.” He looked back at the horse. “If I live that long.”
Kaoru bit her tongue and looked around the woods, turning over his words in her mind. The sun had risen higher and the smoke was thinning out. A few paces away, the big black horse snuffed as it nibbled at the weeds at the water’s edge. She looked back at Sandor, knowing that his perplexed expression must have mirrored her own. She sighed hard as she admitted, “What you are saying doesn’t mean much to me.”
“Same goes for you.” Slowly, he eased himself down onto a boulder. His armor creaked and his joints popped as he sat. “So, what the fuck was a girl knight from Essos doing in a mummer’s costume on the back of my horse?”
Kaoru blinked, bemused, still just barely understanding what he was saying. “I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t anywhere near here, and then suddenly I was riding with you through that -- whatever that was.” She thought of the moment before she had been in the thick of the battle, when Enishi’s hand was crushing her neck. She rubbed her throat, wondering if there were marks from his fingers. Naively, impossibly, she had thought she was taming Kenshin’s crazy, murderous former brother-in-law with her small kindnesses, but Enishi had attacked her after all. Would he have killed her if she hadn’t somehow come to this place?
Stop, she reminded herself. Concentrate on where you are now. She shook off the memory as she added, “I’m not from any place called Essos. I’m from Tokyo.”
Sandor grunted. “Never heard of it. Somewhere in the Summer Isles?”
Kaoru’s legs finally gave way, and she plopped herself on the dirt near Sandor. They sat together in silence for a while, listening to water rushing over the stones.
Finally, Sandor heaved a great exhausted-sounding sigh. “Some of the maesters say that magic is returning to this world,” he said. “I think they might be right.”
The footsteps could only be coming from the young man she’d left on the balcony in the building behind her. Sansa looked down at the dirt where she had fallen to her knees. A line of tiny black ants scuttled past her legs. There was a red stain on her grey gown where the queen had sloshed wine on her. Don’t look back. Don’t move. Wait for him, Sansa’s instincts told her.
The steps grew more confident, if still slow, as they crossed the floor and threshold of the entryway and crunched across the gravel yard. They halted beside her.
Sansa glanced out out of the corner of her eye to see the man standing with his weight shifted onto one foot, his orange pant leg pooling at his ankles. His head was cocked to one side casually, even arrogantly. In his hand on the side opposite her, he loosely held an ornate sword that was as long as Arya was tall.
Sansa’s lips parted and her heart raced at the sight of the weapon.
He seemed bored by her reaction. “Do you understand what I am saying?” he said in slurring syllables of a strange language, sounding wholly unsurprised to find a young Westerosi woman kneeling in front of his house.
Sansa found that she did, although she couldn’t have said how. “Yes,” she thought, but out of her mouth came “Hai.” Disturbed, she covered her lips with her hand.
The stranger turned to face her. His features might be considered handsome, even delicate under the scrapes and bruises. His skin was darker than hers, but not so dark as that of some of the Dornish people she’d met; his grim blue-black eyes were narrowed in the sunlight. He wore a peculiar set of darkened glass circles in front of his eyes that were set into a metal frame that she would have loved to ask him about, if she had not been so scared. His spiky hair was as white as snow, as white as the mad King Aerys’s.
He moved his hand up the hilt of the sword in a terrifying caress. “I saw a man with rust colored hair and pale eyes like yours when I lived in Shanghai, after I fled Kyoto. He was Dutch.”
“Oh,” Sansa said, unable to look away from the sword even as the man spewed nonsense at her.
“I killed him.”
“Oh,” Sansa said again. Her tongue felt swollen and dry in her mouth.
The breeze picked up and the man’s hair fluttered in front of his face. “Did Wu grow tired of my revenge against Battousai? Did he steal the Kamiya girl and leave you here with me?”
“No.” Sansa cleared her throat, trying to keep her voice neutral. “I don’t know who those people are.”
He crouched down and swung the sword backward, resting the flat of the blade against his shoulder. Sansa flinched as he took her trembling hand out of her lap and examined it.
She forced herself to leave her hand in his, instead of snatching it away as if he were a snapping dog.
“You’re not lying to me.” It was no question.
“No,” she whispered in agreement.
He nodded as his thick eyebrows furrowed on his forehead. He pressed lightly on her thumb, making a white half-moon appear under the nail. “You are real,” he pronounced, then dropped her hand as if it were a bruised beet he had decided not to purchase at a market stall. “Sometimes I can’t tell.”
He’s completely out of his mind, Sansa realized. Just like Joffrey. Apparently fleeing from King’s Landing had been no use -- no one, not even the Hound, could keep her safe from the madmen of the world. She settled back against her heels. “Are you going to kill me?” she asked quietly, scared but resigned.
The man stood up. He coughed as he had before, the only remaining evidence that mere minutes earlier he had been wholly incapacitated. He gazed out beyond the bay at the ship that was now just a white blotch on the horizon. “Your death would not make Tomoe smile.”
Without further explanation, he twirled his sword off his shoulder effortlessly and stalked toward one of the strange tall trees near the house. He leapt into the air and slashed his weapon with such speed that Sansa wasn’t sure what exactly he had been aiming at until the entire tree came crashing down, leaving only a clean-cut stump. She scrambled to her feet as a cloud of thick dust enveloped her.
“I’m Enishi,” he said. “If Kamiya is still on the island, we’ll need to find her. My jinchuu is not over yet.”
[to be continued]
I purposely didn't include a key here for the Japanese words/words from Rurouni Kenshin, since I am going to try to reveal that stuff during the story, but of course you can look it all up if you just want a faster mental picture :)
Might try to learn how to do a picset for the next chapter because this is a story that is itching for that.
Kaoru slurped creek water from her cupped hands as Sandor splashed away the soot and sweat and dried blood from his face. They had both fallen silent after establishing their truce, each leaving the other alone to think about how to proceed, but the shadows were growing short as the sun reached its peak in the sky, and Kaoru was getting uneasy with the quiet.
She wiped her hand on the loose blue fabric of her hakama. The water darkened the blood of the man whose hands Sandor had cut off. She shuddered, pushing the image out of her mind.
“What do you think magic has to do with anything?” Kaoru finally brought herself to say.
Sandor didn’t answer. He sat back on his haunches and made a gurgling sound in the back of his throat and hocked a great glob of mucus into the stream.
It was disgusting. It reminded Kaoru of her dear but sometimes gross friend Sanosuke, and her heart broke. Would she ever see anyone from Tokyo again? Would she be stuck here forever?
Clearing his throat, Sandor finally replied, “You’re not just from someplace outside of Westeros. I’m no chain-wearing Citadel graduate, but I’ve seen maps of the known world. ‘Japan’ isn’t part of it. Not here.”
Kaoru nodded. It hadn’t really registered into her consciousness until this moment, but in the back of her mind she had been coming to the same conclusion about ‘Westeros’. “So you think --”
“Lady Sansa is a noblewoman with value to many. She has a title, great swaths of land, red hair that would make any man look twice. It’s a wonder no one has tried to get ahold of her before now. I think -- I think they tried to get her. Some sorcerer, perhaps, or some bloody fire-worshipping priest of Stannis’s,” he said, the words passing his lips like a curse. He rubbed an eye with the heel of his hand. “But they didn’t get her. Somehow they brought you here, where you took Sansa’s place. And she was sent to wherever you came from, if she was lucky.”
Kaoru thought about how a homicidal Enishi would react to a strange foreign woman materializing on his balcony after the sudden disappearance of his hostage. “That might not be so lucky for her.”
Sandor’s nostrils flared with shallow breaths. “What is that supposed to mean?” he asked, his voice a blade against a whetstone.
Kaoru didn’t answer right away. She stood and walked a few steps up the stream bank, listening for voices, but all she heard was the chirping of birds, and then the sound of Sandor rising and stalking toward her.
“Tell me.” He had come close enough for Kaoru to smell his still sour breath.
She turned toward him but took a step backward. “I came from a very dangerous place. Both generally, and the exact moment when I, uh, dropped in on you.” She looked down at her woven sandals. One of the straps had come apart and would need to be repaired. She sighed and continued, “I was kidnapped by a man named Enishi Yukishiro, an estranged family member of my --” Of her what, exactly? Just how could she describe Kenshin? As the man whose love she longed to have? As her kindest, best friend, who just happened to be the most feared swordsman on either side of the Boshin War? As her beatific, long-time housemate who had vowed never to kill again as penitence for all the pain and death he’d caused so many years earlier? “-- of my protector, Kenshin,” she hedged, hoping Sandor would understand.
Sandor said nothing, but the spot above his temple was pulsing as he clenched his jaw.
Kaoru fiddled with the hem of her sleeve. “Kenshin was once a fierce manslayer, a hitokiri Battousai. He killed Enishi’s sister Tomoe by accident, right in front of Enishi when he was a child,” she continued rapidly, skipping over the parts of the tragic story that hurt her the most: how Tomoe and Kenshin had been deeply in love, how Tomoe had given her life to save Kenshin’s by jumping into the middle of a swordfight, how Kenshin surely wished that Tomoe was still alive and how he would certainly never love anyone else. “Enishi snapped after he saw Tomoe die. He dedicated his life to taking vengeance on Kenshin -- taught himself how to fight, became a ruthless gangster --”
Sandor snorted impatiently. “Get to the point,” he ordered, dismissing Kaoru’s testimony with a wave of his hand. “What was happening before you -- when you arrived in King’s Landing? What kind of place has Sansa fallen into?”
Kaoru rubbed her throat. She saw Sandor’s eyes flick to her neck and widen in recognition, and that’s when she knew for sure that Enishi’s fingers must have left deep bruises. “Enishi is completely crazy,” she said, cutting to the heart of the matter. “He thinks he sees visions of his sister telling him what to do. He’s trying to make Kenshin suffer, so he kidnapped me and took me to a secret hideout on an island. I thought he wouldn’t hurt me -- he said I reminded him of his sister -- but then after a couple of days, he attacked me. Trying to kill me or just scare me, I’m not sure. But suddenly I couldn’t feel his hand on my throat, and then I was here.”
Sandor seemed to have been stunned into silence. He stood there, breathing hard, refusing to return Kaoru’s gaze.
She felt exhausted all over again, although whether it was from the all-night escape or from the realization that she was in a place where magic was taken as a given or simply from telling Kenshin’s tragic story, she couldn’t tell. She turned away from Sandor. A yellow leaf fluttered across the clearing and landed in the water, which carried it away in the direction they had come from the previous night. It gave her an idea. “Perhaps we should go back into the city to see if we can reverse whatever brought me here, and see about Lady Sansa. We could find where the switch occurred, if that’s what happened.”
“Bugger that. King’s Landing is nothing but fire and death now.” Sandor spat again, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “We might as well slit each other’s throats. We’d have the same chance of survival.”
Kaoru ground her teeth together. “Do you have a better idea, scarface?”
Sandor’s head whipped around at the jibe. “Careful. There’s no line of knights marching out of the forest to come to your rescue.”
Crossing her arms over her chest, Kaoru huffed and turned away. If Sandor wouldn’t take her, maybe she’d have to go back on her own. She wondered how hard it would be to steal his horse and learn to ride it. She imagined her rival Megumi mocking her for such a stupid idea, and then realized this was the first time in her life where she would have preferred to be mocked by the pretty doctor instead of addressing her current situation.
Before she could seriously consider such a drastic plan, Sandor coughed to get her attention again. He spoke quietly, as if he couldn’t quite believe the words were coming out of his mouth. “I’ve heard of someone who might know what to do, to help Lady Sansa. And you too,” he added.
Finally! Kaoru thought, trying to ignore how clearly her own safety was a mere afterthought to Sandor. She sprinted over to the spot where their they had set their swords on the ground and picked up both weapons. “That’s great! Who is it?”
Sandor didn’t move. “A woods witch.” His lip curled in contempt.
Kaoru blinked, unnerved both by the suggestion and Sandor’s anger. Still, she was willing to talk to anybody who might have the power to send her home. With some difficulty, she tucked the sword into her cloth belt. “So, let’s go.”
“Not so fast. She’s far away, with a horde of desperate smallfolk and a roving bands of dangerous army deserters in between. Chances are that we’ll get killed long before we reach her.” Sandor’s expression alternated between hopelessness and fury. “Chances are, Sansa’s gone for good.”
So much self pity from a capable warrior was getting real old, real fast, as far as Kaoru was concerned. “You’re not exactly helpless with a weapon, and neither am I.” She marched over to Sandor and held out his sword to him. “Come on, let’s find the witch and get her to help us. I have important people I need to come home to.” One in particular, she thought, thinking of Kenshin’s calm, content smile.
Sandor still didn’t move. He was starting to become a real pain in the ass.
Kaoru looked up at the sky and blew the bangs out of her hair. If she had been dealing with Yahiko, she would have started screaming at him by now, but this particular uncooperative swordsman seemed to need a different kind of motivation. “If not for me, do it for your Sansa.”
Sandor shot her a look of alarm. “She’s not my --”
Kaoru rolled her eyes as she cut him off. “Yeah, whatever you say. Let’s go.” She started jogging toward the horse.
Evidently, she had made the right move. Sandor’s armor clanked as he scrambled to catch up to her.
Sansa shuffled down a twisted path through the trees a few paces behind Enishi. They hadn’t been walking for more than a few minutes, but the canopy had closed over them like the arched ceiling in the Sept of Baelor, and she couldn’t have found her way back to the house if she had tried.
This place was beautiful, but Sansa was miserable. Even here in the shade, her hair stuck to her face and the back of her neck. Her cheeks stung from her earlier unprotected exposure to the sunlight. Her sweat had stained a great circle under the one remaining arm sleeve of her gown; the other had been torn away when the Hound’s horse Stranger had passed too close to an ornate, jutting archway as they’d fled the Red Keep. The rest of the garment was in a similarly devastated condition. The rocks and bushes along the path had already snagged what was left of her skirts. Once, she would have cried over the destruction of such finery, but she’d left those days far behind in King’s Landing.
Sansa had come to the conclusion that she and Enishi were the only people left on the island — unless, of course, the Kamiya girl somehow turned up. Or better yet, Sandor Clegane, she dared to hope.
When she wasn’t concentrating on where to put her feet without tripping, she stole glances at her strange companion. Enishi was almost as tall as the Hound, but where Sandor Clegane was broad and muscled like a bull, Enishi was slender, with taut, ropy muscles. He had slung his sword across his back in an enormous scabbard, and he kept looking back at her with wild, suspicious eyes. He had declared her “real”, but now he seemed to be doubting his own pronouncement. He had also told her that he wouldn’t kill her out of respect for the wishes of someone named Tomoe. Sansa hoped he wouldn’t start doubting those wishes as well.
Enishi halted at a break in the foliage that exposed the view of the beach. Sansa looked beyond the bay, where the ship she’d seen earlier had disappeared over the horizon, and Enishi noticed. “When the ship returns, Wu will surely bring me good news of Battousai, of how he suffered at my hands when he thought he lost Kamiya, of how he’s finally dead from the pain, how he finally knows the anguish I live through every day --” his voice rose as he babbled giddily. Sansa’s stomach curled over itself in terror. She’d witnessed Joffrey growing similarly euphoric while reciting the ways he had destroyed people’s lives.
Enishi took a breath and brought himself under control again. “Then I will return Kamiya to Tokyo. It’s what Tomoe wants. Not what I tried to do before. I know that now.”
It wasn’t entirely clear to Sansa that Enishi was still addressing her, or if he was just talking to himself. She found herself hoping that he would forget that she was there, just as she had so often with Joffrey.
Enishi turned to face her fully, and glared at her dress. Sansa forced herself to keep her arms at her sides.
“Your gown is falling off of you,” he observed, but the way he said it made it clear that he found the fact annoying rather than arousing. He glanced around the underbrush and declared, “Kamiya isn’t over here. Come with me.”
They trudged back to the house and went inside. Enishi beckoned Sansa to follow him up the stairs and wait in the hallway as he opened a set of cupboards built into the wall. Sansa peered through the open doors leading out onto the balcony, noting that Enishi had left the table overturned.
Enishi took out a sort of gown made of fine blue cloth with a spray of white flower petals. It looked beautiful, comfortable and clean, and Sansa longed to feel all of those things again.
Enishi tossed the robe back onto the shelf. “Kamiya will need that,” he said, apparently changing his mind. “Besides, I’ve never seen a foreigner manage to put on a kimono correctly.” He grabbed another bundle that, after he shook it out, turned out to be a wrinkled, boxy overshirt and pants made of rough black fabric and a collarless white undergarment that resembled a short shift. “Wu’s extra clothes,” he deigned to explain. “Dress yourself in that room and meet me in the foyer. We’re searching the beach next.”
“Thank you,” Sansa said, accepting the clothing.
Enishi looked at her with hard, unkind eyes. “For what?”
“For helping me,” Sansa replied, hoping that was, in fact, what he was doing.
He narrowed his eyes. “Thank Tomoe,” he said, and he walked back down the stairs, leaving Sansa to wonder whether he actually expected her to say words of thanks to this absent, or possibly imaginary, person.
Sansa stepped into the room, which was lit up with midday sun streaming in from another one of those wide, perfectly-glassed windows. A fluffy white robe lay crumpled on the floor. There was no furniture but for an unmade bed and a lacquered black side table with a wooden pitcher and cup. It occurred to Sansa that this was probably the Kamiya girl’s room, and she shivered. But her thirst got the best of her, and she hastened to the table to drink the water in long, unladylike gulps straight out of the pitcher, for which the Hound would undoubtedly have mocked her.
Don’t think of him. Concentrate on staying safe, she reminded herself. She removed what was left of her gown, kept her stockings and smallclothes on, and dressed as quickly as she could. The outfit was clearly cut for a man, being too wide in the shoulders, but at least it was intact. She fastened the knotted buttons into loops that ran from the top to the bottom of the jacket, then stuck her feet back into the riding boots that the Hound had insisted she wear as they had fled the castle.
Enishi was waiting for her by the open door. He jerked his head to the side, wordlessly commanding her to follow.
They walked down yet another path, this one steeper than the others, which opened up to the beach after a short time. The reflection of the sun on the water burned Sansa’s eyes, and she found herself wishing that she had borrowed one of the wide-brimmed conical hats she’d seen hanging by the back door in the kitchen.
Sansa hadn’t walked more than a dozen steps onto that blinding sand when the view became fuzzy. The expanse of sea and sky was growing faint as columns of alternating brown and grey appeared. She looked down at her boots. The beach rotated beneath her, steadily darkening, with leaf shapes intermingling with the beach sand. When she looked up again, she could see Enishi still standing near her, but he was -- it was almost as if he was fading from view as the columns grew into trees that blotted out the skies.
And then, as quickly as if she had been snapped from a slingshot, a girl stood before Sansa. She was short, with long, black hair tied back from her face, a dirty white shirt with baggy open sleeves, a blue pleated garment over her legs which might have been a skirt or very loose pants, and an unsheathed sword stuck into her belt. Her sharp, narrow eyes stared back at Sansa with the same amount of shock that Sansa felt.
The girl opened her mouth to speak --
And then she was gone, along with the beach and that endless sky and the terrifying man with the mad eyes.
But in the girl’s place stood Sandor Clegane. His eyes looked like two boiled eggs, they were open so wide.
Sansa had never been so grateful to see him, not when he’d tossed his white cloak over her bare shoulders in the throne room, not even when he’d appeared in her chambers in the midst of battle to rescue her. She reached out and grabbed his massive forearm with both hands before she could be swept away again, and she dug her nails into the chainmail.
The Hound’s mouth was hanging open and making noises, but he wasn’t quite creating intelligible words yet. He slapped his own gloved hand over hers, as an extra anchor, and another wave of relief crashed over her. Finally, he spoke. “How did you -- what did you -- “
“I don’t know,” Sansa choked out. “I was just -- suddenly --” She took a few deep breaths and relaxed her grip on his arm. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Sandor moved his hands to her shoulders and he turned her from side to side. His gaze shot from her face, down her body, and back to her face again. “You’re not hurt?” he barked, taking her hands roughly in his and checking them for injuries.
“No,” Sansa said, “Just -- just shaken.”
He jerked his chin down, agreeing with her. He was staring down at her with fresh alarm. “What in the seven bloody hells are you wearing?”
[to be continued]
If it isn't obvious, I'm using the show canon Blackwater scene (sans knife, etc) for less freak-out amongst characters.
Chapter 4: gaijin/foreigner
“Stop what?” Sansa whispered to the Hound.
“Stop touching me,” he said, his voice a low rasp.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The air shimmered; the tree trunks blurred away and brightened into familiar blue skies. Kaoru held up her hands -- those, at least, stayed in focus -- but the rest of the world faded behind them. Her stomach curled in on itself in fear.
“What’s wrong, girl?” Sandor asked beside her, where he had just dismounted from his horse Stranger after another several hours of riding, but his voice echoed in her ears and grew faint, as if he were falling away from her.
She turned her head to look at Sandor, but in the warrior’s place stood a tall, swaying girl with snarled copper hair and sunburnt cheeks. She wore a black overcoat and pants that looked like they belonged to one of Enishi’s Shanghainese subordinates.
The girl could only be Sansa.
Kaoru opened her mouth to warn her --
But Sansa twisted away as if she had never been there, and she took what was left of the forest and Sandor and Stranger with her. Once again, Kaoru stood upon the white beach of the triad’s tropical island, with the afternoon sun setting fire to the clouds above and the seas below.
She heard a cough not far from where she stood. Enishi, she saw, biting her tongue to keep herself from screaming.
He wasn’t facing her, and his great watou blade was sheathed and strapped across his strong back. He gave no indication that he realized that she had returned.
Kaoru’s fingers found her sword hilt as the last wisps of Sansa dispersed in her mind. She withdrew the weapon from her belt in silence and positioned herself to strike. She would have to incapacitate Enishi now, while the advantage was hers. He wouldn’t get another chance to kill her.
She flew forward, attacking with all her strength.
Enishi’s sidestep was so sudden and his disarmament of her was so powerful that she was still trying to figure out how he’d done it even as he flipped her through the air and slammed her body into the ground. Dazed, she stared at a pink cloud above her and croaked some air back into her lungs.
A shadow fell over her face, and her stomach lurched. Enishi would finish the job now; surely he would separate her head from her neck.
But he wasn’t in the proper stance to strike. He pushed his darkened spectacles up the bridge of his nose with two long fingers and stood up straight, examining the strange sword that he had taken from her.
Kaoru sat up and groaned. Sand rained down as she shook her head. She blinked away the grit and looked up into Enishi’s face, hoping her anger covered the fear in her eyes.
“You’re back,” Enishi said, sounding oddly unsurprised by that fact. His gaze lingered on the bruises around her neck.
Kaoru swallowed, feeling the apple of her throat slide down the marks he had left there. “For now,” she said, and she noted with relief that her lips were forming words in Japanese once again.
Enishi didn’t seem to have heard her. His eyes slid back to the Westeros sword and he adjusted his grip, then lifted up the weapon. As he slashed the air, Kaoru shied away instinctively before comprehending that he was simply testing the blade’s response.
She tried to get up as she watched him, but the bones in her legs were made of jellyfish. She sighed and kicked the sand, cursing the magic had switched her with Sansa, wishing she’d been dropped at home with her friends instead of back here with the white-haired freak.
“You promised you’d take me back to Tokyo,” Kaoru growled in Enishi’s direction, hating that she sounded petulant and scared.
Enishi stopped swinging the sword and turned back toward her. “I will.” His face contorted into an expression she’d never seen on him -- discomfort, or maybe even embarrassment. “My subordinate Wu and his men have left. They’ll return in a few days to report on the progress of my jinchuu, and if it is finished, I will send you home.”
Then Enishi did something downright weird. He held his hand out to her.
Kaoru scuttled backward, sneering at his outstretched palm as if it were a poisonous snake. “No thanks. You almost choked me to death.”
Enishi blinked, and his temples pulsed as he ground his teeth together. “A mistake,” he said, and his eyes crinkled up at the corners in obvious pain. “Battousai’s death is what Tomoe wants. Not yours.” His hand was still extended down to her.
She could only stare. If Enishi changed his mind again and decided to hurt her, he would. It didn’t matter that she was one of the best sword fighters in Japan. Enishi outmatched every warrior she’d ever known, including herself, in speed, strength, and skill. Everyone except Kenshin, who will come for me any day now, her inner optimist reminded her. Or Sandor, maybe, without the armor weighing him down.
Her only option, then, was to feign trust. She took Enishi’s hand. His nails dug into her flesh as he pulled her up.
Without needing to discuss it, they headed back toward the triad waystation house together. They hiked up the steep path up the bluff, with Enishi leading and Kaoru huffing and puffing behind him, her thoughts scrambled in her skull. Enishi took off his orange jacket and wrapped it around his weapon, revealing a bloom of moisture down the back of his blue undershirt and and a sheen of sweat glistening on his chiseled shoulders. He showed no other sign of having any difficulty with the climb, unlike Kaoru, who was humiliated by how she could hardly keep up with his pace.
As Kaoru failed to hoist herself up over a boulder, her frustration came bubbling out. “Didn’t you think it was strange that I just disappeared and then suddenly came back?” She exhaled and tried a different foothold. Her sandal still scraped the side of the rock uselessly. “Don’t you want to know where I went? Where I got that sword?”
Enishi crouched and reached his arm down, which she took begrudgingly and allowed him to lift her all the way up. She didn’t miss his eye roll as he turned away from her, and she resisted her strong desire to smack him. Enishi was undoubtedly frightening, but he could also be incredibly annoying.
He didn’t answer for a while and Kaoru assumed he was ignoring her, but when they reached a flat part of the trail, overgrown with ferns and leafy, spindly trees, he began speaking so softly that she had to stop walking to hear what he said. “I know that most people think I’m crazy because I can still see and talk to Tomoe. Even my subordinates in the triad whisper when they think I’m not listening.” His knuckles were white as he clenched his fists. “I’m not crazy,” he added, whipping his head around and glaring at Kaoru, as if she had accused him of it.
“I never said you were,” Kaoru replied, holding up her hands in a deferential gesture, thinking of how she had told Sandor exactly that and hoping Enishi couldn’t discern the truth from her expression.
Enishi leaned toward her as if he wanted to share a secret. The scent of his sweat was sharp and salty against the aroma of jungle decay. “Tomoe is still here with me. She doesn’t come to others, but she is real as real as when she was alive. And I know -- I’ve learned in the years since he killed her that not everything I see --” he broke off, licked his chapped lips, and tried again. “Sometimes I see things that others can’t -- things that don’t make sense --” He looked down at his feet.
Kaoru followed his gaze, feeling oddly uncomfortable with Enishi’s words. They both watched as a lizard scurried into the middle of the path, tilted its head up at them, and raced to the safety of the foliage on the other side.
Enishi stood up tall and shrugged. His voice was strong and low when he spoke again. “I can accept things that others can’t. Like you disappearing and returning with this relic.” He jerked his thumb at the sword he’d strapped to his back along with his own weapon. “Like the gaijin girl with the pale eyes.” He removed his spectacles and wiped away the sweat on the bridge of his nose.
Not for the first time since she’d heard Enishi and Kenshin’s tragic family history, Kaoru felt like sobbing. She knew she should hate Enishi for turning her life into a nightmare as he tried to destroy Kenshin, but she only felt pity for him now. Tomoe’s death had crushed him; the grief had turned his hair white and had addled his brain. He was just sane enough to understand how broken he had become. Without thinking, she reached out and placed her hand on Enishi’s forearm in comfort.
“I know you won’t hurt me again,” she said, and she almost believed it. She forced herself to keep her hand pressed to Enishi’s slick skin.
Enishi nodded and swallowed, and Kaoru wondered whether he was listening to Tomoe’s voice at that very moment. Gently, Enishi removed Kaoru’s hand from his shoulder, then spun around abruptly and continued up the path.
By the time they arrived at the house, Kaoru’s clothes were drenched in her own sweat, and she could hardly breathe for the stench of that unnatural smoke from King’s Landing emanating from her clothes and hair. She wanted desperately to head to the bathhouse for a thorough scrub, but first she needed to secure a few more promises from Enishi.
As they stood in the cool shade of the porch, Kaoru addressed her captor. “Before you go do -- whatever you’re going to go do --” she started roughly, then took a breath and continued. “The other place I went to is very dangerous. It’s in the middle of a war. If I somehow go back --” She glanced at the sword over Enishi’s shoulder. “Please, Enishi, let me keep the sword with me. I will need it in that other world. I swear I will not use it against you.” Not that I could best you in combat anyway, she thought bitterly. She bowed her head and hoped that he trusted her more than she trusted him.
His shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His formerly black slippers were coated in the powdery dust of the trail. “I’ll think about it.”
Jerk, Kaoru couldn’t stop herself from thinking. “Fine.” She lifted her eyes to his. “One more thing.” This request could prove even more necessary for her safety. “If Sansa -- the girl from that other place -- if she switches with me again, would you please keep her safe?”
Enishi raised a single eyebrow, clearly not expecting the request. “I won’t hurt her. My fight is with Battousai alone.”
Kaoru blew out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding. The corners of her mouth turned up as she said, “Thank you.”
Enishi’s cheekbones darkened and he looked up at the rafters. “Go wash up. You smell like a tannery fire.” He stalked into the house and Kaoru heard the parlor door slam shut, leaving her to stew over the insult.
Kaoru climbed the stairs and went into the room in which she had been staying to gather her robe and towels, mulling over her unexpected victories. She went to take a sip of water and found the pitcher empty, and she realized Sansa must have drained it.
Unlike the comfortable house, the bathhouse was an uncomplicated shed; it had a full metal cistern of water, a few stools, and an empty round wooden tub that Kaoru could have filled up and stoked a fire under, had she wanted to take the trouble to have a hot bath. She undressed and sat on one of the stools, then washed herself with cold water from the cistern and scrubbed with a cake of soap with a bitter citrus scent. After that she rinsed her filthy clothes, hoping they wouldn’t grow mold in the damp air when she hung them up to dry in her room. She donned her bathrobe, gathered her wet garments, and returned to the house.
When she went inside, she couldn’t hear Enishi, although he was probably still around somewhere. She walked upstairs and went back to her room.
On her futon lay the finest katana she had ever seen. She hurried over and picked it up, then unsheathed it. It was just her size, and the blade had been freshly sharpened.
“Stop what?” Sansa whispered to the Hound.
“Stop touching me,” he said, his voice a low rasp. “I have a soldier’s instinct, girl. You keep startling me like that, I might accidentally draw my sword on you.”
“I’m sorry,” Sansa replied, her sunburnt cheeks stinging anew with the heat of embarrassment. “I’m afraid I’ll lose you here in the dark.” It was late at night and the low moon provided only weak light as they walked alongside Stranger to give the warhorse a rest, but the real reason Sansa kept grazing her fingers against Clegane’s arm was that she was afraid she’d fall back into that other world at any moment. If she could hold onto him, then perhaps she couldn’t leave -- or at the very least, perhaps Clegane would come with her.
They had already spoken of Kaoru Kamiya, the one who Sansa had seen as both worlds had swirled around her, and of the strange Enishi who had both frightened and helped her. Clegane had cursed when Sansa had confirmed that she had been on the island, and she had had to assure him many times that Enishi had only scared her, not hurt her. Later, when they were riding through the forest again, Clegane had related to her what Kaoru had told him of Enishi. In spite of the terror and confusion she felt about Enishi, she felt a pang of sorrow and compassion when Clegane explained that the troubled young man, like herself, had witnessed the death of a family member. After that, they’d traveled in silence, and as Clegane had stared off into the trees, looking for danger, Sansa had remembered her father and eventually had dozed off.
When the sun had set and they’d dismounted from Stranger, Clegane had taken a small knife from a bundle on Stranger’s saddle and had shoved it roughly into Sansa’s boot. Now, the leather sheath was rubbing a blister into her ankle, but she was grateful to have the blade. She might need it for both worlds.
But thinking about the weapon made Sansa’s heart thump and her chest tighten. She tried to take a deep breath and found that the air couldn’t fill her lungs. Her vision blurred, and distantly she wondered whether it was from her fear, or if the forest was about to spin away from her again. She reached out and grasped Sandor’s chainmail sleeve as her legs wobbled.
“What did I -- Sansa?” Clegane’s angry tone shifted to concern -- and a drop in formality, Sansa noted hazily between gasps -- as he turned back to her. He pulled the water skin off Stranger’s saddle unstoppered it for her, then shoved it into her shaking hand.
She drank too fast and choked, but the liquid brought her back to herself. “Thank you,” she sputtered. Her fingers still gripped the Hound’s arm.
The moon had risen over the tops of the trees and Sansa could see more clearly again. Deep shadows exaggerated Clegane’s scars, and although that had terribly frightened her long ago, tonight his face was a welcome sight. Her hopes rose. Perhaps she wouldn’t go back to Enishi’s island. Perhaps she and Clegane could make it to her family, without Joffrey’s men capturing them, without starving to death, without --
“We should rest for a while,” Clegane said, interrupting her thoughts. “The woods witch is said to live near High Heart, to the north, and we’ll need our strength to get there in one piece.”
Sansa nodded in vague agreement. She knew little of the continent beyond the North and King’s Landing, and she knew only of High Heart from Old Nan’s stories, as a mystical place that had been sacred to the children of the forest. Although she ached to go straight home to Winterfell, or at least to Riverrun, which had declared for Robb, she understood the wisdom in Clegane and Kaoru’s plan to talk to someone with knowledge of magic first.
She looked at the Hound again, expecting him to give her instructions about making camp, and suddenly she understood the extent of his exhaustion. His unscarred skin was sallow, almost grey. His good eye had a purple-black circle beneath it, and his lips were cracking and bleeding in places. “You need rest. I’ll -- I’ll keep watch,” she offered, remembering one of the duties of her guards when she was traveling south down the Kingsroad with Father and Arya so many years ago.
Clegane chortled, but he seemed to realize, belatedly, that he had no choice but to rely on her. His mirthless grin fell from his face as he nodded. “Make no sound if you hear something. Just shake me awake and I’ll figure out what to do. If someone tries to attack you, scream as loud as you bloody can.” He looked down at her hand on his arm. “I can’t tend to Stranger with your claws in me like that.”
“Oh. Right.” She dropped her hand to her side. “Thank you, Hou --” she stopped. That title, that one Joffrey used so gleefully to intimidate his subjects, seemed wrong and rude out here. “Thank you, Clega --” she trailed off. That didn’t seem quite appropriate either.
“‘Sandor’ is acceptable,” he mumbled over his shoulder, sounding annoyed.
“Thank you, Sandor,” she said, and her cheeks stung again, but at least the name felt right on her tongue.
He grunted and shook out Stranger’s bridle in response.
Sansa sat down on a rock and pulled her knife out of her boot. Her eyes felt heavy, but she forced herself to sit up straight and pay attention to what Sandor did to make camp.
After Sandor hobbled the horse and set the tack aside and removed his breastplate, he spread out the saddle blanket as a makeshift bedroll and lay down on his back, with his arms crossed over his chest. The moon had risen high in the sky, and the metal studs on his clothes glinted in the light.
Sansa resolved to give Sandor time to rest. She tried to control her thoughts by identifying the many forest sounds, by gripping her knife in different ways, by naming the members of the Targaryen dynasty in reverse chronological order. But the thick jungle air, Enishi’s wild eyes, the nauseating switch with Kaoru -- the memories crackled at the edges of her mind. Her lungs seemed to fill with cotton and her breaths started coming fast and short and heavy again.
She glanced over to her companion. His eyes were still open, and he was looking up at the stars.
“Sandor,” Sansa whispered, her voice sounding hoarse and far away against her pounding pulse.
“What,” he muttered, still staring at the sky.
She shifted herself off the rock and plopped onto the dirt. She didn’t trust herself to stand. Sandor looked over at her and must have been able to see her fright, for he rolled onto his side and was making to spring up and grab her.
“No, wait, stay there --” she coughed. Her heart slowed and the fear in her chest seemed to uncoil. She inhaled the cool night air and did not faint away. “I’m fine. I apologize for disturbing you.”
Sandor remained frozen in a half crouch. His eyes were narrowed in suspicion. “Is this going to happen every few minutes for the rest of the night?”
Anger flared in Sansa’s breast. Apparently Sandor didn’t fully appreciate the reason for her terror. “I’d rather have more of this than another trip to Enishi’s island,” she retorted, her exhaustion overriding her manners.
The response seemed to subdue Sandor. He gave her one more look that she couldn’t quite read, then flopped back onto the blanket. He lay one hand on his chest and the other on the ground at his side as he shut his eyes firmly.
It humiliated her to acknowledge it, but Sandor had a point. She couldn’t keep bothering him all night, not if she wanted him to be able to help her tomorrow and every day until they returned to her family. But she didn’t think she had the ability to sit alone calmly, not without changing something.
Sansa scooted closer to where Sandor lay. She bit down on her lip and nodded to herself to keep up her courage, then, without asking permission, she placed her hand firmly over his.
Sandor’s eyes shot open and he looked up at her in surprise, but Sansa jerked her head, wordlessly willing him to say nothing. She couldn’t bear to have to keep admitting aloud to him how scared and helpless and useless she felt.
He seemed to understand. He moved so that his great rough hand engulfed her long, soft fingers. He closed his eyes again, as if he was insisting that they both pretend he was sleeping.
[to be continued]
Your comments are always appreciated, especially for this story. It is clawing its way out of my heart and making me write it.
Chapter 5: watou/blade
Sandor stared at their hands for a moment, then jerked his chin slightly, as if disagreeing with himself. He shifted away from Sansa and coughed, then scratched the back of his neck and looked up at the sky.
A/N: It’s been a little while since last I posted, so as a reminder: Sandor and Sansa have reunited in the forest (for now), and both fear being separated again, so they are on their way to the woods witch for some answers. Kaoru has returned to Enishi’s island and has secured his promise not to hurt her or Sansa, for whatever that is worth.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Back home in Tokyo, Kaoru would send her kendo students out to practice their strokes in the rain when they were being lazy or mouthing off. She was beginning to feel that punishment had been too harsh. Despite the warm air, the downpour in which she was training had chilled her skin and made her muscles twitch as she slashed the air with the sword Enishi had given her. Her feet slipped in the mud and her soaked hakama clung to her legs. Willpower alone kept her attacks from growing unforgivably sloppy.
“Never seen moves like that from a swordfighter,” Enishi remarked, dry and comfortable on his teak chair beneath the eaves of the covered porch. He’d been sitting there all morning oiling his watou blade as the tropical storm had flooded the yard and stolen the grace from Kaoru’s strikes.
“I’m used to using a solid wooden bokken, not a naked blade,” Kaoru reminded him. She brought the sword down with an experimental technique she had been developing. “And I have to modify my style for Sansa’s world. I need to be ready when I get sent back.”
Enishi tilted his head as he gazed at her over the top of his spectacles. “When you get sent back? How do you know you’ll go back at all?”
Kaoru attempted the strike again, starting from a narrower stance this time. “It’s not over yet. Don’t know how I know. I can just sort of feel it.” She grunted as her sword came around. The move still wasn’t quite right. She straightened up and glanced back at Enishi. “You saw that enormous ancient weapon I brought back with me. That’s the kind of stuff I’ll have to face there.”
“Your speed and accuracy will overcome the differences in sword weight and length,” Enishi replied, yawning. He was trying to look bored, but Kaoru knew he was watching her closely. Pathetic, she thought.
“Of course,” she agreed, doing her best to keep the exasperation out of her voice. She was no farmer’s daughter who had never handled anything more dangerous than a kitchen knife. “But I must be able to disarm and incapacitate, not take lives.”
Enishi’s handsome face wrinkled up in a sneer. “What’s the point of wielding a sword, if not to take lives?”
She’d been thinking about that issue for far longer than she’d known Enishi. Swords were fast becoming obsolete in her rapidly modernizing Japan. Even the most skilled sword wielders -- even Enishi, even Kenshin -- couldn’t defeat a gangster with a gun. Someday soon, if she lived through this current torment, she would have to lay down her weapon forever and find another way to preserve the hard won peace of the Meiji Era.
But it wasn’t like that in Westeros. There, Kaoru’s sword skills would be essential to staying alive. She ignored Enishi’s words as again she shuffled toward an imaginary attacker and lashed out. It still wasn’t right. She could still accidentally kill someone with that strike.
Enishi lapsed into silence, and for many minutes Kaoru heard only the rainfall, her heavy breaths, her sloshing footsteps as she practiced. Finally, she straightened up and wiped her slimy hair out of her eyes to look at her companion.
He was staring past her, where the horizon would be if the low clouds weren’t blotting it out. He clenched his fists as his eyes flicked back to hers. “You’d do better to run away from your enemies. Swords are for killing. Even Battousai knows that, deep down. It’s how he took my sister’s life.”
Tomoe sacrificed herself to save Kenshin, Kaoru thought to herself but knew better than to say aloud. “Well, I vowed to use my sword to protect people, even strange attackers in that other world. Never to kill.”
Enishi glared at her. “You’ll die there, with that philosophy. Here, too.”
Or maybe I’ll save some lives, Kaoru thought as she lunged forward with her weapon. That time, she got the move just right.
“And that’s how I got the scar across my knuckles,” Sandor said, concluding a story about a scuffle near Casterly Rock that had also meandered through a tale about a mob of fishmongers and a dog that squealed like a pig. He laughed and coughed and slid his eyes in Sansa’s direction as if to check what her reaction would be.
“Hmm,” Sansa caught his eye and nodded with as much politeness as she could muster. She reached out and brushed her fingers against the mossy stone wall beside her. The rough stones provided as much distraction from her aching, empty belly as Sandor’s stories did, which was to say, not much.
Sandor apparently noticed her lack of enthusiasm, but he didn't seem offended. “Not one for battle stories? No matter. I can tell you about the secret passageways in the Red Keep, or the vaults of Golden Tooth, or --” he broke off as he looked at Sansa’s face, and he must have read the misery in her eyes. He seemed to want to reassure her that they were actually making progress toward attaining their goal. “We’re not far from the woods witch now. Just past the Stoney Sept here --” he patted the town wall -- “And about three more days through the hills, if we can keep this pace.”
Three more days? Sansa could hardly imagine three more days of eating sandy watercress for every meal while jumping at every possible sign of danger. She bit down on her lower lip to keep the complaints from spilling out. She remembered the strange but enticing smells emanating from Enishi’s distant kitchen and wished she’d had the foresight to grab some of whatever had been cooking before she’d come hurtling back into her own world. Just thinking about it caused her stomach to gurgle audibly. “Do you think the woods witch will have food?” she asked.
“Oh, aye, a great feast table set for all the woods witch’s guests, with roasted venison and boiled potatoes and pheasant smothered in prune gravy,” Sandor cackled.
A simple ‘no’ would suffice, Sansa thought to herself. She was in no mood for teasing.
Stranger whickered beside his master as if joining in on the fun. But then this probably was fun for him. After all, he didn’t mind eating weeds, and he was getting yet another rest from his only duty.
Sansa, for her part, had assumed that they could ride the warhorse indefinitely, but Sandor had quickly disabused her of that notion, and she had the blistered, sore feet to prove it. Her stomach made another noise. “Perhaps --” she began with hope in her voice.
“Absolutely not,” Sandor rumbled. “We wouldn’t even be walking past this town if it weren’t the fastest route to the witch.”
Sansa stopped talking. Over the past few days, she had learned that Sandor would only slide her first name across his tongue when he was trying to save her from misfortune. He had spit it out in a whisper to silence her as a handful of Lannister scouts had passed their hiding spot in the bushes; he had shouted it to stop her from stepping into a hunter’s trap; he had murmured it into her ear as she had fought off the suffocation that enveloped her when she thought of spinning back into Kaoru’s world. Now, as then, he was acting as her protector.
“Thank you, Sandor,” she responded finally, feeling more confident in speaking his name, as if using it were a second way to show her appreciation. “I will not ask again about going into the town. You’re simply keeping us both safe.” She brushed her knuckles against his, which was the extent of touching that Sandor allowed her while they were traveling.
Sandor stared at their hands for a moment, then jerked his chin slightly, as if disagreeing with himself. He shifted away from Sansa and coughed, then scratched the back of his neck and looked up at the sky.
Sansa followed his gaze. The clouds looked like combed wool.
From beside her, Sansa heard Stranger yanking grass up at the roots and chomping it heartily. All three of them had stopped moving forward, and Sansa hadn’t even noticed until now. She looked down at her boots and started walking again. “Um -- didn’t you say you were going to tell me about the vaults of Golden Tooth?”
Sandor laughed, and to Sansa it sounded like he was relieved to talk about something else. “Of course,” he replied, shaking Stranger’s reins to bring the horse’s head up. “You think you’ve seen glittering treasure’s at King’s Landing? It’s nothing compared to the solid gold blocks they store in the chests of --”
And suddenly, he shoved Sansa so hard that she flew against the wall and was knocked breathless. As she gasped air back into her lungs, Sandor drew his sword and kept his massive back to her.
“Would be best for you to move along,” he growled toward the trees. “Sansa, hold on to Stranger,” he muttered quietly over his shoulder. “Now.”
Still stunned, Sansa managed to scuttle forward and pick up the leather reins that Sandor had dropped, as if she could actually control the enormous beast. As she did so, she peeked around Sandor’s great frame and saw three ragged men slipping out from the shadows of the trees.
“Don’t mind us,” croaked the tallest of the men. Like the others, the color of his skin and hair and clothes were concealed by a thick coat of brown grime, but his sword was unsheathed and gleamed in the sunlight. “We’re just fellow travelers on this road.”
“And I’m the Knight of Flowers,” Sandor replied, taking a step forward.
“Give us the horse we’ll be on our way,” The man grimaced, revealing a mouth devoid of teeth as he raised his sword.
One of the shorter men added, “Give us the girl, too.” His face was pinched and his sword was mottled with what looked like dried blood.
“I’ll die before that happens,” Sandor snarled as he took another step.
“That’s the idea,” the third man replied.”
A twig snapped and Sansa turned away from the brewing fight and looked back toward the woods. “Sandor, there’s two more men coming out --”
“Stay behind me and Stranger -- shit!” he cried as an arrow whizzed past his ear and stuck the pommel of the horse’s saddle.
Stranger whinnied and pranced about as the tall man shouted to someone in the woods, “Don’t aim for the horse, idiot!” Sansa held tight to the reins and prayed to the Seven that Stranger wouldn’t rear up, that she wouldn’t get hit by an arrow, that Sandor wouldn’t get slaughtered before her eyes.
Sandor used the distraction to charge the three in front of him. Sansa knew better than to watch, with an unknown number of other fighters somewhere in the trees. She grabbed her knife from her boot, useless though it would probably be in her hands, and did her best to use Stranger as a shield.
The two men from the other side scuttled out of the bushes. One grabbed Stranger’s reins. The other ran toward Sansa, sword extended toward her.
“No!” Sansa screamed. The man reached for her, but just as his fingers were about to grab her sleeve, Sansa’s world began to spin.
“Sandor!” she called, but it was too late for him to save her now. Her attacker froze in front of her, and he faded along with the wall and the path and the sunlight. The sound of swords clanging together echoed and grew muffled and curled into the sound of rainfall. And then, instead of the attacker, Kaoru stood before Sansa. The young woman was soaking wet and held up a long, narrow blade.
Kaoru’s dark eyebrows furrowed and she stood up straight. “Sansa?” she said. She started talking in that other language. “Can you understand me? What should we --”
There was no time for this. “You're going into the middle of a swordfight!” Sansa cried. The words came out in the Common Tongue, but Kaoru must have understood, because she dropped into a strange stance and held the blade straight before her.
“How many?” Kaoru asked. Her sword quivered, and she swiveled her head around, as if attackers were about to jump out into this swirling in-between space.
“Six or more. Swords and someone shooting arrows from the trees, too.”
Kaoru blanched. “Where’s Sandor?”
“He’s fighting three of them.”
Kaoru jerked her chin down. She steadied her blade. “I’m ready.”
The spinning slowed and Sansa felt the first droplets of rain. Kaoru faded.
“Tell Sandor I’m unhurt,” she called. And then, almost as an afterthought, “May the Seven protect you.”
“Uh . . . right. Same to --” Kaoru’s words were drowned out by thunder as she disappeared.
Suddenly it seemed as though someone had poured a trough of warm water over Sansa’s head. She was standing in a pool of shallow mud that was once the yard in front of Enishi’s house.
From the covered walkway, Enishi sighed. “You again,” he grumbled, sounding disappointed. “Kamiya was just beginning to interest me.”
[to be continued]
Thanks for sticking with this! I know my writing with this is spotty, but the story won't leave me alone so I really will finish this sucker. Slow burn, indeed.
Chapter 6: yokai/phantom
A/N: It’s been a while, so as a reminder: We left off with Sansa and Kaoru switching places again. Sansa has fallen into a rainstorm outside of Enishi’s waystation house, and Kaoru has tumbled into the middle of a Riverlands skirmish.
And some Rurouni Kenshin related reminders for strictly SanSan fans - Kaoru loves Kenshin, who was long ago married to Enishi’s sister Tomoe and accidentally killed her when he was trying to rescue her. That drove Enishi crazy and hellbent on revenge, which is what Sansa has gotten dropped into the middle of. Whoops, fate!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“What are you waiting for? Run them through!” Sandor screamed from far down the path. His voice wavered as he extracted his sword from the body of an attacker.
Kaoru looked back at the two filthy boys she had pinned to the wall with her katana. The bigger one glanced at the bow at his feet. “Don’t even think about it,” she growled between her teeth, then stepped back and sliced through the bowstring. “I’m not going to kill you, but my friend Sandor will. Get out of here, and remember this kindness.”
The smaller boy leapt out of weapon range and disappeared into the trees without hesitation, but the larger one eyeballed Kaoru with clear disbelief written on his dirty face. “Why?” he whispered.
“The strong should protect the weak. Now run!” she cried Sandor’s heavy footsteps grew louder.
The boy didn’t need another warning. He grabbed the useless bow and melted into the thick forest.
Sandor soon stood beside her, gulping great breaths. “Why in the seven hells did you let them go?” he howled. He looked ready to strike her with his massive fist.
Kaoru stepped out of his reach before answering. “They’re children.”
“Both old enough to kill us,” he rasped. He ran his fingers through his greasy hair, exposing the angry red nub that was all that remained of his ear. “Both ready to steal Sansa when their leader demanded it.”
“You know of my vow,” Kaoru answered quietly as she returned her clean blade to its sheath. She cringed at pile of bodies that Sandor had left in the middle of the path. “I disarmed an archer, which is no small feat.”
Sandor rubbed a blob of drying blood from his forehead. “True. You could have just killed him with less fancy footwork.”
“Aren’t you pleased that we’re walking away from that fight with our lives?”
“You’re only alive because I butchered the other four attackers,” Sandor said as he wiped his own bloody sword against his breeches. He sheathed the weapon and looked at Stranger, who was sniffing at the corpses. “Did you see her?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“She’s unhurt,” Kaoru told him, using Sansa’s words. “She warned me about the fight.”
“Good girl,” Sandor said, sounding impressed. He glanced into the woodland shadows. “Now let’s leave before the boys you showed mercy come back with a dozen men to finish us off.”
Enishi glared at Sansa, who sat at the kitchen table, the pantry’s entire contents spread out across the wooden slab.
Sansa met the killer’s eyes coolly. Speak first, if you have such a problem, she thought to herself, or stay silent.
Blinking, then looking away, Enishi pushed his glasses up his nose and shouldered past Sansa as if she weren’t there. He sauntered out the doorway that led to the dining hall, leaving only the sound of rain hitting the glass window.
Sansa shoved another metal box filled with thin hard bread into her sack. She couldn't fight, but she could save Sandor from starving, if he and Kaoru managed to survive the ambush.
Of course they survived, she insisted to herself, stuffing the largest, whitest radish she had ever seen into the bag. She swallowed nervously.
Sansa couldn’t bear to think of switching with Kaoru again, only to find Sandor’s bleeding broken body lying on the earth --
Her stomach gurgled. The unfamiliar foods with which she’d sated her hunger earlier we're settling poorly. She drank warm water from a glazed cup and took a calming breath.
Sansa stood and slung the sack across her body. It was heavy, but she was tall and strong, and Sandor would need nourishment after the fight. There was still a bit of space, so she stuck some clean cloth squares on top of all the food and drew the drawstring shut. As long as she kept the sack by her side at all times, she would have a useful store of provisions for whenever the gods dropped her back into Westeros.
She set her mouth into a thin line, considering her position. Perhaps she could do more.
Carrying her supplies, Sansa lumbered upstairs to the closet where she’d found the first sack and withdrew a second. She brought it back to the kitchen and filled it with the more of the queer metal boxes of flatbread and glass casks of pickled vegetables and oily skeins of dried squid and cloth bags holding grain. She lugged both sacks up to Kaoru’s room and set the newly filled one beside the bed.
A leaf of parchment lay crumpled on the side table. Sansa smoothed out the paper, then fished a chunk of charcoal out of the cold hearth. She scratched out a message in vertical lines, with long graceful strokes that she had never before seen but could somehow write in this world. “Kaoru - Accept this food for you and Sandor. I pray for your safe return, and for mine as well. Your faithful friend, Sansa Stark.” She smudged the character for “friend” but knew the word to be true.
Two soggy days and nights passed. Sansa spent much of her time opening every drawer and cupboard in the house, and she squirreled away anything small and useful into her clothes or her sack. She saw Enishi rarely and spoke to him even less often. At night, while she lay in Kaoru's bed, fully clothed in the black coat and pants of Enishi’s absent underling and clutching her food-filled sack to her chest, she allowed her mind to wander to Sandor and Kaoru. She prayed that the Crone would light their way to the woods witch.
On the third day, Sansa awoke to a dry, slate-grey sky. Through Kaoru’s bedroom window, she gazed out at the harbor and the ocean beyond.
A ship’s black silhouette broke the horizon. The vessel was far longer than the largest war drummond in Blackwater Bay, with three -- three! -- masts jutting up from the enormous hull. Closer, a rowboat bobbed in the waves as it approached the beach.
“Come with me.” Enishi stood in the doorway with his enormous sword slung across his back, his expression as dark as the clouds.
“Keep your face covered. We shouldn’t draw attention to ourselves,” Sandor murmured to Kaoru. His breath stank from the wild onions they’d dug up at the edge of a burnt field and eaten raw.
“Sure, because your face doesn’t draw attention,” Kaoru grumbled. Tokyo never seemed further away than when she was riding on the horse behind the fully-armored Sandor, trying to blend in with the Westerosi. She tied a rag over her nose and mouth, then pulled what was left of Sandor’s bloody white cloak over her straight dark hair.
They’d passed few travelers during their two days and nights on the road beyond the walls of Stoney Sept, but when they’d turned onto the forest path to High Heart this morning, they had begun to encounter more. Now, as Stranger clopped up what Sandor said was the final hill, they found themselves at the end of a line of thin, desperate-looking riverfolk pulling hand carts, and pale men with shifty eyes and daggers poorly concealed under their tunics.
“Who are all these people?” Kaoru whispered into Sandor’s ear.
“Wretches seeking answers, just like us,” he grunted.
“We need more than answers,” Kaoru replied, remembering Kenshin’s soft violet eyes and Sansa’s frightened blue ones. She shivered and grazed her palm against the sheath of her sword.
By the time they reached the clearing at the top of the hill, the sky had darkened to the color of the Sumida River, and Kaoru’s chest tightened with the memory of laughing with Kenshin and Yahiko on the bridge at dusk.
“If this doesn’t work, what do we do?” she asked quietly, but Sandor was already dismounting with his armor creaking and rustling, and he didn’t answer her.
From the top of the hill, Kaoru could see the burnt fields to the south from where they’d ridden, as well as smoke rising far to the north. A ring of massive grey-white stumps encircled the hillcrest, and in the center several camps of rough travelers surrounded small fires. Horses and donkeys grazed at the edges of the clearing as their masters milled around, eating and talking. Kaoru’s stomach gurgled as she caught a whiff of charred meat.
“Stay with Stranger,” Sandor commanded. Lines etched his broken brow. “I’ll find out when we can we talk to the old wench, and learn what she’ll want in return.” He pulled a golden coin from his saddlebag and jerked his chin toward the clearing. “I don’t need to tell you to stay away from those men, do I?”
Kaoru narrowed her eyes. “I can protect myself.”
“I’m not worried about you. I’m worried pissing off the woods witch. If she doesn’t help us, Sansa could be lost forever.” He turned on his heel and slunk toward one of the campfires.
She dismounted from Stranger and clutched the great beast’s reins in one hand while resting the other against her sword hilt. She could hear a strange stringed instrument being plucked near the fire and a man’s rich voice singing a sad melody. “I don’t want to be stuck here, either,” Kaoru pouted to herself.
“Stuck where?” a young voice asked from a few paces away. Kaoru looked up to see a girl with short, jagged brown hair and tattered pants. She might have been trying to pass as a boy, but the slight swell of her chest gave away the disguise. The girl stared baldly at Kaoru’s sword.
Kaoru cleared her throat and adjusted the rag at her face. She hoped that the growing darkness was enough to obscure her eyes and skin. “Stuck here, amongst these burnt out farms,” she answered carefully.
The girl approached without waiting for an invitation, but Kaoru noticed that she remained out of weapon range. “You’re a lady knight,” she said with wonder in her voice.
“I guess,” Kaoru agreed. “Sort of.” And perhaps it was the hunger, or the exhaustion, or the weariness of switching between Sandor Clegane and Enishi Yukishiro as her only companions for far too many days, but she yearned for more conversation. “I’m not much of a horseback rider, but I do know how to swing a sword.”
Grey eyes glittering, the girl nodded. “I’ve never seen a sword like that,” she said.
“It’s, uh, from up North,” Kaoru stammered. “Winterfell,” she added, naming the only place that Sandor had ever spoken of besides King’s Landing and Essos.
The girl eyeballed Kaoru. “Is that so?” She didn’t seem convinced.
Kaoru wished she had said nothing, but now it was too late. She tried a subject change. “Have you spoken to the woods witch?”
“The Ghost of High Heart,” corrected the girl. Her eyes slid back to the campfire, and she frowned. “She doesn’t want me here. Says I stink of death.”
“Oh.” Kaoru didn’t know how to respond.
“Come, girl, we must leave. The old woman’s song is over, and --” A tall man with pale bulging eyes and a scraggly red beard approached, eyeing Kaoru closely. Apparently he didn’t like the way she looked, for he placed his rough large hand on the pommel of his own sword before continuing, “ -- she says there is another with whom she must speak. Greetings, friend.”
Kaoru nodded to the man and inched her feet further apart.
A smirk flashed across the man’s face, his snaggletooth glinting. “You needn’t worry about us, mysterious traveler. We’re in a hurry to leave the old gods to themselves. Come, girl,” he beckoned.
The girl began to turn away toward her companion, then gave Kaoru one last glance over her shoulder. “Next time, say the sword is from Braavos,” she whispered, then caught up to the man as he hurried her toward their horses on the other side of the clearing.
A few minutes later, Sandor crept up behind her. He crouched in the shadow of Stranger’s broad back. “Why in the Seven Hells were you speaking to Arya Stark?”
“That girl?” Kaoru’s head felt fuzzy.
“Yes, that girl. Sansa’s sister, alongside some of the most dishonest knights in Westeros, all now headed to the Twins.”
“How do you know where she’s going? Or who she’s with?”
“You think I was standing around waiting in line for the witch this whole time? I was listening and watching that bearded fool’s party. I hid in the trees, or they would have recognized me in an instant.”
“So none of them saw you.” The fuzzy feeling grew, and the skies seemed to pulse with energy. “What now?”
Sandor set his jaw grimly. “We’ll follow them. There’s enough men in their party to keep them moving slowly.”
It was becoming difficult for Kaoru to concentrate. “What about the witch?” Kaoru asked.
“What witch?” croaked a voice from the direction of the clearing.
Kaoru turned to see an old woman, as small as a child but wizened, with wiry white hair and black burning eyes. Behind her the clearing vibrated and shimmered.
The Ghost of High Heart opened her mouth to reveal a lone tooth. “The dog with no master must stay here. But you, yokai, come with me. The giant-slaying maid shall be along shortly.”
Sansa’s heart thudded as she slipped down the muddy, ruined path to the beach. She clung to her supply sack, grateful that Enishi had said nothing when she brought it with her. She wondered about the appearance of the ship, and the people in the rowboat. Were they Kaoru’s friends, having come to rescue the woman who wasn’t there, or were they Enishi’s allies? In either case, she suspected that no one from this world would be pleased to see Sansa here instead of Kaoru. She found herself wishing that Enishi trusted her enough to let her stay back at the waystation house.
Enishi never seemed to lose his footing, though the mud blackened his orange pants to the knees and coated his sword’s sheath in grime.
As they reached the edge of the jungle, he halted. “Stand beside me. Keep your face neutral. Say nothing, and pretend to understand nothing.”
Sansa nodded, but her face must have belied her terrified confusion, for Enishi added, “Don’t think to escape. Tomoe protects you for now, but this group shall not help you.” He whipped around and paced out onto the beach.
Sansa inhaled a great breath of humid air and followed.
Four Mountain-sized men in identical black caps and blue tunics were hauling the rowboat out of the surf and onto the sand. A slight man with short, straight black hair and brown-gold skin yelled at them, but the waves carried his words away from Sansa. He wore the same style of black pants and jacket that Enishi had given to Sansa when she arrived, and in which she was still attired.
Wu, Sansa remembered Enishi saying when he had handed her the clothes. They were Enishi’s men, then, and not Kaoru’s friends.
Wu turned around and noticed Enishi and Sansa, and Sansa might have found the many rapid changes in his expression comical had she not been so frightened.
The questions were carved into Wu’s angry face. Who is this foreigner? Why is she wearing my clothes? Where is Kaoru?
Sansa’s legs trembled and she wished Sandor were here, even as her own questions bounced around her head. What if Wu’s men attack me? Why wouldn’t Enishi allow me to hide?
“Boss,” Wu hissed to Enishi. He continued to ogle Sansa with furious narrowed eyes. “You have an explanation for the European?”
“Does she have anything to do with your duties?” Enishi replied, his voice like a blade against ice.
“She might,” Wu sneered, revealing a set of crooked teeth. “You promised to hand the syndicate over to me once your revenge plan is finished. If you’re cutting side deals with the Dutch, or worse, the British --”
“Until Battousai is dead, I’m still the leader of the organization,” Enishi growled, “And I’ll cut deals with whomever I choose.” He gripped the hilt of his great sword. “Must I make myself clear?”
“There’s no need for that,” Wu said, shrinking from his superior. “But Battousai is not dead. Quite the opposite.” Sansa was sure she detected the hint of a smile on Wu’s lips.
Enishi tilted his head to one side, and his white hair whipped around his face in the breeze. “Tell me everything,” he said, his voice as black as pitch.
“Kenshin determined that his Kamiya girl isn't dead after all. He learned the location of this hideout from one of your former allies. His ship will be here in a few days, and he’s bringing his friends.” Wu glared at Sansa before shifting his eyes back to his boss. “What are your orders?”
“Let them come.” Enishi’s mouth twisted into a snarl. “Let them come to die.”
Wu cackled mirthlessly. “I’m sure they will.” He looked at Sansa as he said it. Behind him, the sand and sea and skies began to shimmer.
[to be continued]
I didn’t completely faithfully reproduce the events or layout of High Heart, but I figured this story is out there enough that it didn’t matter too much.
You ever write something and think “I just need to write this to the end, dammit”? That is how I feel about this. That’s why, in spite of my months-long breaks between chapters, I never doubt that I will keep working to finish this. Thanks for reading, kudosing and commenting!!!
LOTS of SanSan in the coming chapters ... just had to get there first!